Power of the Poor and the Power of Nonviolence

A peaceful protest march by landless villagers leads to serious land reform in India

By Jill Carr-Harris | 2013-10-01 12:00:00

There was an unforgettable moment on October 11th, 2012 in Agra—the home of the Taj Mahal. Fifty thousand landless poor people had just marched on the national highway for ten days from Gwalior toward the capital, New Delhi, demanding their land rights. Less than halfway to Delhi the minister of rural development, Jai Ram Ramesh, arrived with a busload of journalists at the central field of the old city, where the marchers were encamped, with an impassioned plea for people to accept a ten-point agreement on land reform. Never before had a minister stood in front of 50,000 of the poorest people in India, requesting them to sign an agreement on land reform. It seems to have been the power of the poor and the power of nonviolence that made it all possible.

Ten days before, at the start of the march, in the city of Gwalior, the same minister had refused to make such a commitment. What had changed his mind? How had the prime minister of India justified turning 360 degrees in the space of a few days? How did the minister find the confidence to sign this agreement without dealing in the same manner with other such groups? During the previous year many social movements had been formed with different agendas, such as anti-corruption legislation, controlling black money, and regulating pension schemes. Why didn’t such middle-class issues get the government’s attention?

The article traces the power of nonviolence in achieving a poor people’s land reform agenda. Land for the poor is generally perceived as being a cause in direct opposition to the requirement of land for industrialization or urban expansion—both of which are essential for economic growth. Yet the government took the side of the poor. This was indeed people’s history in the making.

The Jan Satyagraha march was an extraordinary event that profiled the power of the poor. The twenty-year cadre formation had created a disciplined group who slept on the national highway, ate one meal a day, and walked continuously in the hot sun. Their ability to undergo “self-suffering” impressed onlookers who would normally have seen these people in a negative light, as bandits and benefit-seeking beggars. But these marchers gave outsiders the impression that they were dignified and upright. Their daily discipline on the march had been started by each villager saving one rupee and one handful of rice every day for the previous three years. They had developed a steely commitment. over time.

The training of youth and other leaders for the Jan Satyagraha was crucial in exemplifying the power of the people. Out of the 100,000 who were mobilized for the Jan Satyagraha, 12,000 were youth leaders. They had been trained to deal nonviolently with possible conflict, and in particular to watch out for unwanted elements entering into their section of the march. They were well-versed in issues and strategies and were prepared for different reactions. The leadership was decentralized and not dependent on one leader. With the help of these trained leaders, people at the grassroots had created groups through that had brought communities together and prepared for this mass action. They had gradually become aware of their power to re-set the policy agenda on land reform—and not simply submit to a policy directed by the government. Resetting a pro-poor agenda meant putting considerable pressure on government. This would be done through a combination of mass action and ongoing dialogue. In the action they took up the act of “self-suffering.” This non-threatening attitude was nonetheless provocative, so the regional and national media gave the Jan Satyagraha larger-than-life coverage, impressing senior policy makers and the general public favorably.

Women’s Interests and Participation in the Jan Satyagraha Movement

Women joined the Jan Satyagraha because they wanted to bring forward genuine problems; otherwise they would not have accepted the challenge of leaving their families during a festival season. Three months before the Jan Satyagraha march, women leaders met in Jaipur and proposed increasing the gender composition to 50 percent. They set up a separate women’s group within the march itself to ensure their visibility without detracting from the unity of the movement. This built up solidarity and networking among women and between the female and male movement leaders. Women in the Jan Satyagraha were able to find two slots in which to operate autonomously among the 75 caravans, and these two were reserved exclusively for women. This had been quite a struggle but Rajkali, the leader of the women’s wing, was able to achieve it: “I set my goal of mobilizing 2500 women for the Jan Satyagraha march but only 1155 women came. Still, this was very significant.”

The march turned out to be 40 percent female, which also indicated the weight of women’s demands. Their interest in having women’s independent and joint title on land deeds was one of the five major demands delivered to the Government of India in advance of the march. There was decidedly less emphasis put on community-based land rights because women felt that with the advance of globalization and the resulting land conflicts, they were poised to defend their land rights from the onslaught of industrial/state interests. In the case of both individual and community land ownership, it is necessary for poor women to safeguard their land rights by being part of the Jan Satyagraha.

Building Alliances

A key aspect of mobilizing in the Jan Satyagraha was building broad alliances in advance so as to offset the state’s “divide and rule” politics. The forces of fragmentation might have prevented people from coming together and joining the march. To counteract this, Ekta Parishad, the leading organization of the Jan Satyagraha, sent a team out for one year. They traveled 80,000 kilometers to 350 districts and interacted with hundreds of communities. This cross-India tour connected more than 2000 NGOs and social movements together to fight for land. Many of these groups subsequently participated in the march and the follow-up on the land reform agenda.

Struggle and Dialogue

Political representatives were counting the marchers on the Jan Satyagraha and assessing their likely influence on the elections. They counted the people as well as the constituencies, states, and different social groups. Everyone knew that the mobilization of so many people might be a game-changer for the 2013 state elections and the hustings of the 2014 national election.

The Jan Satyagraha was very different from other actions of the movement in that it kept the struggle going but was open to dialogue. It did not follow the protest model of “us against them.” When the rural development minister had agreed to come to Agra to finalize an agreement, the Jan Satyagraha had sent a team of negotiators to work it out with the government. It was decided that an equal number of civil society representatives would be on the National Land Reform Committee and that together they would first create a roadmap for action and then cooperatively draft the policies and bills.

That is what occurred. The openness to dialogue enabled the minister of rural development confidently to sign an agreement with the organization. The two sides had achieved sufficient trust to negotiate a settlement. No one was trying to show “one-upmanship.”

At the same time the government could not afford to refuse to negotiate. The stakes were too high. The minister and the government knew if they did not negotiate, people would flock to the opposition. These fifty thousand people represented another five million people—a sizeable constituency in the country.

The dialogue was supposed to culminate six months later in the acceptance of a ten-point National Land Reform Agenda. This plan was adopted by an agreement on October 11, 2012, which meant that each item should be completed by April 11, 2013.

Accordingly, Ekta Parishad and its allies held a meeting on April 11, 2013 and found that seventy percent of the agenda had been completed. The main item was the formulation of a national land reform policy. This has now been drafted and sent to all 26 states for input and review before going to the cabinet for final sanction.

A second important point is the formulation of a shelter-land bill. This was the first such legislation in the world to stipulate that homeless and landless people are to be given one=tenth of an acre. This derives from the fundamental rights of the Indian Constitution that promises everyone a right to life.

The third important item tightens up the rights of indigenous people over forest land and reinforce the sovereignty of indigenous people over their resources.

Finally. there is emphasis on the land and women, ensuring gender equality in land ownership. This strengthens various marginalized women’s groups.


The strategies adopted by the Jan Satyagraha showed the power of the poor and of nonviolence. Trained leadership, communities preparing for action, leaders cultivating numerous allies, and the dialogue process were all factors allowing the Jan Satyagraha to succeed as one of the biggest nonviolent movements in modern-day India. Now the challenge will be for people to gain and keep their land titles.

Jill Carr-Harris is a development worker, based in India since 1985.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2013

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2013, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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